With consecutive and decisive victories, the BJP seems firmly established as India’s new dominant party, the pole around which politics is organized. The previous political era was defined by competitive multipolar coalition politics and was preceded by several decades of Congress dominance following India’s independence in 1947.
An expected victory with unexpected ease
This result was surprising but not shocking. Pre-election polls had predicted a BJP victory, but most had not anticipated this scale of dominance. Experts thought the incumbent government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi might take a hit because of its spotty economic record. Modi’s term was marred by insufficient job creation and declining commodity prices for farmers. Pundits also criticized Modi for a number of policy decisions, such as the sudden move to invalidate or “demonetize” most of the country’s paper currency in 2016.
A ‘Modi wave’? Not so fast.
While official returns tell us how the vote went, understanding why voters made their choices requires detailed national survey data not yet widely available. Yet post-election commentary is already rapidly converging on a two-word explanation: Narendra Modi.
Perhaps 2019 signals a personally popular leader powering his party to victory. Yet this “Modi wave” narrative is highly premature.
One frequently cited statistic in favor of this argument comes from a respected election survey, in which 32 percent of BJP supporters said they would not have voted for the party if Modi was not its prime-ministerial candidate.
This one figure is hardly irrefutable evidence — voters expressing loyalty to Modi tend to be the privileged Hindus most likely to vote for the BJP anyway. Their responses may indicate their enthusiasm for Modi, while overstating his sway on their vote.
The figure is not unusual for Indian elections. For example, the 2004 edition of the same survey reported comparable loyalty (29 percent) among BJP voters for leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The BJP lost that election — and no one spoke of a “Vajpayee wave.”
It also is hard to isolate the BJP win from the important structural advantages the party enjoys. The most obvious is money. The Association for Democratic Reforms, an independent elections think tank, tracked the incomes of India’s seven largest political parties in 2017-2018. They found the BJP’s donation income was more than twice the combined income of the other six parties.
The party also benefited disproportionately from electoral bonds, a shadowy campaign finance tool BJP introduced in 2017. The system allows donors, including foreign entities, to make anonymous donations of any amount. The move widened the BJP’s financial advantage: The party captured 95 percent of all electoral bonds in 2017-2018.
Such missteps enabled the BJP to dominate its chief rival across north India’s “Hindi heartland.” Political scientist Neelanjan Sircar calculated that the BJP won a stunning 92 percent of seats in which the Congress was its principal opponent, and just 52 percent of seats it contested against smaller, regional parties.
The BJP enjoys organizational advantages over rivals, as the political arm of India’s Hindu nationalist movement. This movement spreads its ideology through numerous grass-roots organizations, including welfare organizations, student and farmer wings, and militant groups that target religious minorities in the name of protecting Hindus.
Reducing the BJP’s victory to Modi’s personal popularity skirts the potential effect of the appeal to Hindu nationalism. One of the party’s winning candidates is a self-styled Hindu ascetic facing terrorism charges for plotting a bomb attack intended to target Indian Muslims.
How much each of these factors fueled the BJP’s win is not yet clear. The election’s consequences for India’s 175 million Muslims are clearer. The BJP’s strategy focused exclusively on appealing to Hindus. Relatively few Muslims voted for the BJP, and none of the party’s 303 members of India’s lower parliament are Muslim.
Correction: A previous version of this post said that none of the BJP’s 303 members in parliament were Muslim. It has been updated to note that this refers to the members of the lower parliament.
Tariq Thachil is an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. His book, “Elite Parties, Poor Voters” (Cambridge University Press, 2014), examines the rise of the BJP among poor voters in India.